Dick Whittington at the National Theatre
The last (and only other) time the National Theatre put on a pantomime was Cinderella in 1983. A Victorian era-inspired production, the show boasted extravagant sets, gaudy gentry and period-appropriate songs. 2020’s Dick Whittington has none of this. Instead, with a focus on energetic engagement and dance-infused spectacle, this new production is closer to Six than Snow White; it’s a pop concert, not a pantomime.
Reworked by Jude Christian and Cariad Lloyd and initially staged at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2018, this updated fairytale does away with the old hallmarks of the panto format and boils the experience down into its purest form: lighthearted, high-energy fizz. As neon strobes pulse on stage like a late-80s night club, the cast buzz as they perform pop ballad after pop ballad, with the flimsiest of plots stringing them along. Evidently this is a team that’s tired of the same old pantomime formula and want to inject some freshness into proceedings.
Indeed, the show reeks of a team trying to seem as “fresh” as possible: from Tik-Tok trends to “slimings” to references to K-pop supergroup BTS, Dick Whittington is a smorgasbord of contemporary youth culture. Nothing is safe from the show’s attempt to be hip – take Dick’s feline best friend, Tomcat: here, he’s dressed in garish yellow like a shoddy Soundcloud rapper, littering his lines with non-stop meme-talk (“what are those?!” he expounds to Dick at one point).
This pandering towards Gen Z does sometimes feel a tad ham-fisted – it’s the stage equivalent of director Ned Bennett going “what is up, fellow kids?” – but’s well-intentioned. If, under these socially-distant conditions, you can’t create “high art”, why not try to create something as broadly appealing as possible?
And there is something quite appealing about the whole experience. Beneath the hyperactive veneer, for example, there’s a timely reflection on the state of democracy. After a year that’s seen some pugnacious elections and plenty of megalomaniacs, it’s refreshing to hear Dick earnestly celebrate public service and community betterment; he’s not standing to be mayor because of some overblown ego, but because he genuinely wants to help his beloved city. Sure, this commentary may lack nuance at times (the bad guy literally sings Bad Guy by Billie Eilish), but it’s a thoughtful undercurrent that helps shore up some of the show’s more vapid moments.
To be honest, that’s all Dick Whittington is: vapid, but decent entertainment. It’s a shut-your-brain-off-and-enjoy kind of fun – the kind that somehow reframes Mr Brightside by The Killers into an optimistic anthem. It’s nowhere near a perfect panto, but it’s pretty good for a second try.
Dick Whittington is at the National Theatre from 6th January until 23rd January 2021 and free via YouTube until 27th December 2020 here. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.